Why there’s a land claim


You may not have been looking when it happened, but the people who run Nunavut Tungavik Inc., along with their lawyers, have recently given us an excellent lesson to illustrate why it is that Nunavut Inuit need a land claim agreement.

They did so when they recently took the federal government to court over a new set of turbot quotas announced earlier this year by Fred Mifflin, the Liberal government’s former minister of fisheries and oceans.

Here’s what happened:

On April 7, just 20 days before Prime Minister Jean Chretien issued his call for last May’s federal election, Mifflin announced that Canadian fishers would be allowed to catch an extra 1100 tonnes of turbot on the Canadian side of the Davis Strait this summer.

But Nunavut residents, whose land lies next to Davis Strait, didn’t get much out of the new allocation ­ only 100 tonnes, just 10 per cent of the total.

The rest went to fishing interests in the Atlantic provinces, a region whose voters have been turning away from the Liberal party in droves. That was evidenced on election day, when hundreds of thousands of voters turned to either the Tories or the NDP

So although no way of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, Mifflin’s announcement reeks of short-term political opportunism. Despite what he and his department might have claimed at the time, his Davis Strait quota anouncement smelled like a cynical attempt to use Arctic fish stocks to buy votes in Atlantic Canada for the Liberal party .

Since Mifflin apparently ignored not only the advice of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, but also the advice of his department’s own scientists, political gain appears to be the most likely motive.

Nunavut only has one seat in the House of Commons. Atlantic Canada, on the other hand, has dozens. So the interests of a southern majority easily out over Nunavut’s tiny northern minority.

In the east coast fishery, this is not a new issue. Despite lobbying from the GNWT and others, Ottawa has been giving northern fish away to the handout-hungry voters of Atlantic Canada for years.

Nunavut is small, thinly populated, and most of the time has no strong political voice in the South. But thanks to the land claim agreement, Nunavut Inuit have one powerful weapon on their side ­ the law.

So these days, however, it’s not so easy for Ottawa to get away with such abuses. The Nunavut land claim agreement ­ now part of Canada’s law and protected by Canada’s constitution ­ is there to define Inuit rights, including harvesting rights within Nunavut’s offshore.

Without that agreement, NTI could not have gone to court to have Mifflin’s decision overturned. Inuit and other Nunavut residents would have been stuck with an unjust and arbitrary decision piece of economic colonialism.

As it is, Nunavut residents are only allowed to catch about a quarter of the total allowable turbot catch in Davis Strait, a situation that makes Ottawa’s April 7 decision even more reprehensible. Just imagine how angry the people of Newfoundland would get if Ottawa suddenly awarded three-quarters of that provinces offshore fish stocks to residents of another province.

Justice Douglas Campbell’s July 14 decision in the federal court of Canada doesn’t even come close to guaranteeing that Nunavut Inuit will be allowed to catch a majority of Davis Strait turbot quota.

But it does mean that Ottawa must genuinely listen to Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the public body that’s in charge of most wildlife harvesting matters in Nunavut. And that by itself ensures that Ottawa’s next turbot quota announcement will be more favourable to Inuit.

In the future, the claim agreement will be a crucial weapon for Inuit to hang on to. Many people in southern Canada are now be sympathetic to the concerns of aboriginal people. But that will not always be so.

When Canadian public opinion turns against aboriginal people, as it inevitably will, Inuit will need the land claim agreement more than ever.

Those beneficiaries who are now complaining that the land claim agreement has brought them no benefits should think about that for a while.

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